I wished upon a
lucky star and a demon appeared on the window sill. It was not what
I had been expecting.
'Umm...hello,' I said, 'How can I help you?'
Earlier that evening I had received two phone calls and one visit from
various friends, and the conversations we had embarked upon had been
sickening. Sickening because of the way that my voice grated, and slipped
between pitch and pitch like the sound of a cleanerís cloth squeaking
back and forth across a window. It was hard to follow the ongoing thoughts
and words of my friends, preoccupied as I was by the hideous whinging
that limped out of my mouth. That made our dialogue full of false starts
and awkward pauses, until each friend hung up, or left.
Alone, and cursing my vocal ineptitude, I stamped up to my darkening
bedroom, and sat with the light off and the curtains open, watching
the stars come out. I am not a superstitious man, and the last time
that I checked, I was a Cancer, so I decided that I would pick a lucky
star from that constellation. It took me a while to pinpoint the appropriate
bright set of dots in the sky, but I finally managed with the help of
an astronomy manual that my brother (who is far more intelligent about
such things than I am) gave me for my birthday. The Crab proved to be
especially dim, a fact I took as symbolic, and the star I picked, the
brightest star, was referred to, (again, unspectacularly) as Beta Cancer.
This was my lucky star.
Gazing heavenward, sighing, throwing caution to the winds, I made my
wish. I had seen Disneyís Snow White two days before, with my
There was a fizz of purple smoke, glittering briefly with silver flashes.
As the tiny cloud cleared, the demon was left sat there on the window
sill. He looked like a fish.
'Umm hello'? I ventured, 'How can I help you?'
The demon had no arms and legs, and no mouth or eyes that I could spot.
It was a wet pink colour, dappled here and there with shades of grey.
Where its voice came from I cannot say, but it flapped as it spoke,
like a mackerel slung onto a dry deck. In fact, it was about as fearsome
as a mackerel.
'It is I who am here to help you', it proclaimed, in a voice as beautiful
as any nymph or dryad's could ever be, a voice with a texture like peat,
and a lingering note behind each word, like the strong aftertaste of
a royal liqueur. It was a voice that one would beg for a song, and pester
for encore after encore.
'What do you mean?' I enquired, off-put by the sight, but charmed by
'That ours is a bargain to be made', it said, twitching into various
arcs. 'I have a voice with no body, you have flesh with no voice.'
That much was true. I asked what it proposed, and soon rushed into the
study, excitedly dragging open the stationary drawer, and returning
to the demon's window sill with a large, glinting pair, of steel scissors.
I had a jar of pickled onions brooding in a kitchen cupboard, so I shoved
my tongue into the acid with them when I had hacked it out of my throat.
Then, with a shaking glee, I lifted the pink little demon (it was wet
to the touch) and pushed it between my grinning jaws, folding my lips
closed over it. I flicked the light on, and shuffled in front of the
mirror. Then I opened wide.
The demon had perfectly replaced my former mouth-muscle, and sat, amongst
no blood, and no evidence of the nightís earlier, violent surgery,
as if it had been there ever since I was born. 'Irascible man', it cackled.
'Together, we will accomplish much malice'. My ears tingled with the
delight of hearing my new voice, as if milk and honey were flowing through
I wanted to ask the demon what its name was, and whether it was a boy
or a girl, but found that, since I no longer possessed a tongue of my
own, I was incapable. At first this did not seem so unpleasant, for
I had a charmer in my mouth to do my talking for me. Eventually, I wrote
my questions on the corner of the newspaper, beneath the crossword.
'Penemue', it said, and informed me that it was gender-less, as are
all demons being by very nature created, not conceived. It also explained
that this difference between humans and demons was cause for the greatest
jealousy, because demons and angels were incapable of finding physical
solace in fellow demons. 'However', said Penemue,'You shall refer to
me as masculine from here on in'.
The demon slept well that night, but kept me awake with its self-indulgent
Soon after, came the girls. Without wanting to state the obvious, I
should have to describe the process as supernatural. Quite how he did
it I can never know, but that some sort of demonic foul play was involved
seemed almost inevitable. He talked me into exercising at the gym, 'fighting
the flab', so that I could don tight shirts and trousers and blend seamlessly
with the sweaty male crowd of seedy night club dance floors. Once he
had driven me to such locations, it took only a sprinkling of choice
verbal morsels, and all manner of nubile young women were fastened to
my lips, their tongues wiggling about with the lustful Penemue, while
I amused myself at first with groping, and then wondered what all the
fuss had been about in the first place, and wondered at the physics
that enabled some of the things that occurred in the cavity of my mouth
to truly do so.
The demon used to tell me all about it on the following afternoons,
when the hypnotised girl of the night before had been shooed away with
horrific insults that only an eternity of brooding in damnation can
devise, and when the demon's hangover had worn off. He also had the
decency to tell me in detail what my breakfast or my lunch tasted like,
and the perversity to explain the intricately sickly tastes of the residue
on the taste buds after a bad night.
I began to tire of Penemue, and started to dote over a plan. It would
be a risk, but it might terminate this whole tongue fiasco. I had learnt
that, if the demon's vocal indulgence was anything to set store by,
vocal ineptitude was an asset. I wanted to be my clumsy, drawling former
I picked my moment carefully. A skinny blond waif, whose make-up was
rapidly decaying as she slept, had her arm across me. I lifted it gently
off, and rolled out of the bed, leaving her hand slack on the pillow.
Penemue was snoring interminably, but I took every care to keep my head
steady, my neck straight, my jaws horizontal, so that he would not wake
from his contented bed of tonsils and pallet, where he and the girl
(whose name he had not even had the decency to acquire) had enjoyed
so much frisking some few hours ago. Penemue had a penchant for French
Kissing hither to unknown in man.
Down the stairs, and into the study, taking every care to slide open
the stationary drawer noiselessly in the dark, too afraid even of the
flickering clockwork sounds that a neon light always emits to dare turn
it on. Hands slipping around the scissor handles, glinting under a flake
of moonlight, lips easing gently apart and then I had him. He squirmed
in my grip but he didn't squirm enough. After some brutal hacking I
had him on the kitchen breadboard, where I was quick to dice him, fling
open the back door, and run him out to the lawn, scattering him across
the turf for the birds and hedgehogs to do with him as they deemed fit.
Returning the kitchen, I felt as if a great burden had been lifted.
I flicked on the light and then saw, to my horror, that the jam cupboard
was open and the pickle jar in which I had preserved my original tongue
was lying on its side with the lid off - its contents drained and empty.
A drip of vinegar blupped onto the tiled kitchen floor. In horror I
saw that a trail of the greenish acid, mixed here and there with a pickled
onion or two, extended to the back door through which I had just re-entered.
My tongue, presumably no longer able to handle the rejection and its
acidic prison, had somehow broken free and disappeared through the door
even as I was dispensing with its rival in the garden.
I wept a while over my misfortunes, but resolved that I had come this
far, and would see matters through to the end. The trail of vinegar
led swiftly to the drain outside the house, down which it disappeared.
I would follow it. Grasping a torch in one hand and the biscuit tin
in the other (because I might have need provisions), and with no extra
equipment save for a bag of screwdrivers and spanners, I found a suitable
man-hole, unscrewed the cover, and slipped down into the sewers, and
the inevitable catacombs that would accompany the sludge, stuffed with
I found my tongue in a huge chamber where the air was a little less
stiff with the reek of silage. It was not alone. Sweeping the torch
beam across the cavernous room, I saw at least a thousand shreds of
pink, cowering on the flat, greened floor. Each was curled up with various
sentimental souvenirs, a teddy bear or a book of their former master
or mistress. There were tongues who had draped themselves with necklaces
or bracelets, tongues cherishing scraps of clothing ñ one haggard
looking strip of faintly grey flesh had a bottle of whiskey and a packet
of cigars. Most common were photos, pictures of the tongue of beloved
owners. I recognised a good deal of leading politicians amongst the
Amidst this upsetting gathering sat my own tongue. It had only managed
to bring the salt shaker with it as a memento of our times together.
It had obviously been a rushed escape. But how was I supposed to make
up the ground between us when I had no way to speak, and was unaware
of how any of these tongues sensed the world around them? I took a few
paces forward, and the host of muscles quivered a little. One or two
squirmed and skipped their way into the safer, darker corners of the
room. My own old friend stayed put.
The only gesture I could think of was to open my maw wide, and shine
the torch beam inside to reveal the mangled mess inside my throat. I
stood like this for several minutes until, finally, my tongue hopped
forward, leaving the security of the salt shaker behind it. I stayed
still, not wanting it to think that I might try any trickery. Sheepishly,
it's tip waved up at me, and then it pressed itself together into something
like a ball, and leapt! Clearing my sewage stained trousers and landing
just above my knee, it struggled to climb up my jacket, hooking itself
around folds in the cloth. I stayed in that same position as it clambered
over my chin and hesitated on my gums. Then it plunged on in, and I
closed my mouth. There was a gentle patter coming from throughout the
chamber, as the gathered tongues thumped gently on the floor.
'Forgive me', I said, and the words in themselves were forgiveness.
Together, we turned, and headed back to the surface. The night air felt
like ice dissolving on my tongue. I was overjoyed at the taste, coupled
as it was with the acrid tang of pickled onion.
© Ali Shaw
More by Ali Shaw below
I was searching for a tape that had slipped down the back of my desk
and drawers, and I came upon something very strange.
I had been forced to drag all of the furniture in my room away from
that one wall, piling it onto and against my bed like scrap heaps in
a junkyard. Eventually, I had cleared the space I needed to retrieve
my cassette, but my mind had been absorbed (as ever) by the singular
task, in this case of furniture relocation, so that until the precise
moment when I slapped my hands together to brush off the dust, I did
not notice the colony of alien bugs that swarmed in the space where
my drawers had been.
They were all roughly the same size, that of my thumbnail, but they
came in an assortment of dazzling colours; glossy greens, shimmering
blues, and the occasional shine of sparkling gold. I watched them for
some time, as they crawled in and out of their hive. It was a nest that
reminded me, in some funny way, of a mammothís skull; a huge
mound of dirt with the hint of blubber beneath it, covered in a dank
hair like the stuff that grew on my own head. I felt like Gulliver.
I was enthralled.
It was at this point that a fat little alien bug with grey whiskers
stopped, and looked up at me. I could see his knowledgeable eyes sparkling
as they strained to take in my immense size, wobbling on tiny, wire-thin
I wasn't surprised to find this tiny fellow communicating with me telepathically.
Unable to reply likewise, I was forced to return speech with my mouth,
a device that his unearthly civilisation had long ago as a tool of verbal
exchange. It made kissing so much more sensual, and the breath that
was saved by eliminating those words that had never quite been able
to convey the sentiments that they had felt enabled each and every bug
to live for many years longer. Indeed, everything had been replaced
by this incredible language of vivid pictures and naked emotion that
was projected from mind to mind. As the silver bug communicated, I felt
an overwhelming sense of joy at having found such a people. I was sure
that their advanced abilities would result in their understanding of
all of the things I had always meant to express, but fumbled and ruined
in the process. There was a peace in knowing that here was a society
that even I could be at one with, who understood and did not condemn
my every motivation, because their opinions of me were not shackled
merely by the things that came from my clumsy hands, or out of my feral
Then, in a phenomenal vision of smiles so wide I am unable to describe
them, in a display of thoughts of salmon pink palaces, tinted warm by
the settings of double suns, of new worlds intertwined by happiness
and tranquillity, in a sudden feeling of love that was so overpoweringly
sweet that it crushed my heart, I realised that the tiny grey bug was
offering me a chance to join him somehow, far away in his alien heaven
for the rest of my days!
I shook myself, and took a step backwards. I had forgotten one or two
things. First and foremost was the obvious fact that, in a world where
nobody reads the crusts of the human surface, but looks far and deep
beneath it, I would be an invisible man.
© Ali Shaw 2001
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